Kenji Johjima dreamed from a very young age of becoming a professional baseball player. Various circumstances turned him into a Yomiuri Giants fan, and even jumped at the first chance he got to enter a Tokyo area university, so as to more easily get the club’s attention. He rejected draft eligibility status, hoping to wait until his university career ended to declare his intention to sign with the Giants. However, the Daiei (now SoftBank) Hawks recognized that Johjima wanted to turn pro, and knew he was unable to choose his own team straight out of high school. They snapped him up with the first pick in the 1994 draft. Because Johjima’s hero, Sadaharu Oh (of the Giants) was slated to become the next manager of the Hawks, it was easy for him to accept his fate. Partly because of this incident, players who do not expressly declare their draft eligibility are not permitted to be drafted.
While his batting translated to the pro level almost immediately, his catching left much to be desired. Many former Hawks (including the legendary Katsuya Nomura) said Johjima was not meant to be a catcher, and even manager Oh tried him out at first and second base. In 1995 as a rookie, Johjima recorded all sorts of career firsts: at bat (May 31 vs. Orix BlueWave), hit (July 9 vs. Chiba Lotte Marines), start as catcher (July 14 vs. Orix) but did not record a home run until September of the following year – one in which he set a Western League (farm) record for most home runs in a single season with 25.
Johjima became the club’s undisputed Starting catcher in 1997, and became the youngest catcher ever to be voted an all-star. He would end the season with a .308 average, becoming the second youngest catcher to eclipse the .300 mark in a full season. While 1998 was not a great year for Johjima as an individual (he finished the year with a .251 average and fewer than 100 hits), the club finished in the top half of the Pacific League for the first time in the 10 years since moving from Osaka (where they were known as the Nankai Hawks).
Johjima had a landmark season the following year, as he played in every game, finished third in the league with a .306 batting average, led his club to the Pacific League pennant, and won ”best battery award” with pitcher Kimiyasu Kudoh. The following season, despite breaking a bone in his right hand and being limited to 84 games, he helped the team reach the Nippon Series for the second straight season. They did not win, but Johjima hit a series record-tying 4 home runs, and took home the Fighting Spirit Award in a losing cause.
Despite a drop in his average again in 2001, Johjima became the fifth catcher in NPB history to hit more than 30 home runs. He hit three in a single game (Including two in the same inning) early in the year to propel him there. Along with teammates Hiroki Kokubo, Nobuhiko Matsunaga and Tadahito Iguchi, the Hawks became the first Pacific League team in history with four 30+ home run players. It is also the lone team in NPB history to accomplish the feat with only Japanese players. Johjima missed a big part of the 2002 season with a broken collar bone (caused by an errant foul ball). Still, he clubbed 25 home runs and had an average of .293, good for 10th best in the league.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Johjima’s career came in 2003, when he won MVP by hitting .330, with 34 home runs and 119 RBIs. The Hawks once again made baseball history by becoming the first lineup to boast 4-100+ RBI hitters. In the Nippon Series, against our Hanshin Tigers, Johjima once again tied the NPB record (set by Shigeo Nagashima of the Giants and matched by Johjima in 2000) with 4 home runs. He took home Nippon Series MVP as well, leading his team to a 4-3 series win. After the season, Johjima batted cleanup for Team Japan in the Asian block tournament for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Johjima reached the 1000 career hit plateau on June 1, 2004, tying the record for fastest catcher to reach the mark (939 games played). He had to leave the team during the summer for the Olympics, where he helped Team Japan to a bronze medal finish. Upon returning to Japan, he helped the Hawks repeat as regular season champions, but the Hawks lost in the playoffs to the Seibu Lions. Johjima spent much of the second half of an injury-plagued 2005 season out of the lineup, but still managed to reach the 200 career home run mark. After the Hawks bowed out of the playoffs again, Johjima declared he would exercise his free agency rights.
On November 22, 2005, Johjima signed a 3 year deal with the Seattle Mariners worth $16.5 million. Things started off well enough, as Johjima hit home runs in each of his first two games. He would go on to break Hideki Matsui’s record for most home runs for a Japanese player in his first year in the majors with 18. (This also tied Johjima for the Mariners’ club record for most home runs by a catcher in a single season.) He also broke a 44-year old American League record set by Buck Rogers for most single season hits by a rookie catcher (146). He led all rookies that year with 18 home runs, but ended up finishing 4th in the Rookie of the Year polls.
Johjima continued to hit well in 2007, putting up a .287 average to go with 14 home runs and 61 RBIs. He had the best steals-prevention rate in all of MLB (.465) and his fielding percentage was an impressive .998, but because he was not successful at leading his pitchers to lower ERAs, his defense was partially seen as a liability. Still, a strong start to the 2008 season earned him a contract extension (3 years, $24 million). Unfortunately, Johjima struggled immediately after signing the deal, and ultimately lost the starting position to Jeff Clement. He regained the role after Clement’s season ended prematurely to injury, but Johjima’’s 2008 numbers left much to be desired. He was even named ESPN’s “Least Valuable Player” at season’s end.
Johjima joined Team Japan for its second World Baseball Classic title in 2009, contributing with a .333 average, one home run, 4 RBIs, 4 runs and a stolen base. He even regained the starting catcher’s role with the Mariners, but was forced to the disabled list twice in the early part of the season. In his absence, catcher Rob Johnson developed good chemistry with much of the starting rotation, and even when Johjima returned to action, his playing time was severely reduced. He hit slightly better in his limited playing time in 2009, but his low average with runners on base (.188) and a considerable jump in the pitchers’ ERAs with him calling the game had him losing favor with the team. On October 19, Johjima announced that he intended to return to Japan ton continue his career, negating the final two years on his contract with the Mariners.
Hanshin was quick to jump at the chance to sign him, and on the 27th of that same month, the two sides reached an agreement. Incumbent Tigers catcher Akihiro Yano had spent the previous season battling through injuries, and replacement Keisuke Kanoh was unreliable on defense. That combined with the dearth of hard hitting right-handed bats made Johjima the perfect acquisition. Johjima had previously made no bones about his desire to play for the Hawks again, and retire with their jersey on his back. However, the Hawks bowed out of the acquisition race because their catcher had hit 26 home runs that season, and Johjima’s age (and expected salary) made him a less-than-ideal signing for them. Hanshin gave Johjima a 4-year contract worth 400 million yen + incentives per season.
Johjima announced his return to NPB with a few exclamation marks: the go-ahead RBI hit on March 26th (vs. Yokohama, at Kyocera Dome) and an extra-innings walk off home run the next day. He slid headfirst into home for some extra punctuation. On October 5th, Johjima broke the Central League record for single-season hits by a catcher (with 165), thereby becoming the record holder in both leagues. He also became the first catcher to win the Golden Glove Award in both leagues. However, towards season’s end, Johjima injured his left knee and elected to have surgery on November 9th. During his rehab period, a young recently drafted catcher named Fumihito Haraguchi picked his brain for advice.
Johjima defied the doctors’ prognosis of requiring six months to fully recover from the surgery, playing in exhibition games in the spring of 2011. Also, because the season started late (due to the Great Tohoku Earthquake on March 11), Johjima was able to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. Unfortunately, the extra protective padding on his left knee had adverse effects. His mobility was severely limited, as was his playing time, and therefore his production as well. He also perpetuated other bodily injuries (elbow, back) by trying to compensate for the bad knee. He was deactivated having played just 38 games on June 10, and on August 16, Johjima had more clean-up surgery on his left knee.
Johjima gave first base a shot in 2012, but in early May experienced nerve pain in his lower back. He underwent surgery for a herniated disc. In August, while playing in farm games, he strained the muscles in the back of his right knee. He was able to return to action in September, but was clearly unable to fulfill his duties as catcher. Since he felt very strongly about ending his baseball career as a catcher, he voided the final year remaining on his contract, retiring at season’s end. Johjima’s former manager, Sadaharu Oh, asked him to consider extending his career at a different position, but Johjima insisted on retiring.Hanshin manager Yutaka Wada offered to bring Johjima up to play in a special retirement game on September 29 (the Tigers were well out of the playoffs anyways), but Johjima turned down the chance, instead playing his final professional game on the farm against the Orix Buffaloes’ farm team. Johjima hit an RBI single in the bottom of the first inning, and was replaced by a pinch runner. Despite it being mid-game, the action stopped as his teammates (led by Kyuji Fujikawa) hoisted him into the air.
Upon retiring, Johjima returned to his native Kyushu area, and has become a TV personality. Many of the shows were about his great passions, fishing and golf.
Messe’s Road – Player’s Column Vol. 5 (July 6, 2017)